How To Cope With The Loneliness of Being a Manager

Changing the way you think about your team can go a long way.

Ever feel lonely at work? Did you notice yourself feeling more lonely once you started managing people? Well, it’s not just you.

Though the exact links between responsibility and loneliness aren’t entirely clear, conventional wisdom is that “the view from the top is a lonely one.” One explanation, proposed by Northwestern associate professor Adam Waytz, is that “power increases loneliness when it involves sole responsibility for exceedingly tough decisions nobody wants to make.”

When you first step into a management role, you’ve just drastically multiplied the number of people you need to make happy. If you don’t prove value to your team, you will lose them. While before it was clear who your gatekeeper was, and what was expected of you, now several individuals will judge your performance. The metrics they will use to grade you will not be in any published career ladder—they will be solely influenced by what each team member thinks good management is.

Your mood and the words you use can have a serious impact on the mental state of your team, leaving you longing for a simpler time. Small changes like eating lunch alone or hiding your true feelings about a decision you don’t agree with can feel isolating.

Reaching for the feeling of providing value is natural, and so are the feelings of loneliness that can be exposed when all you want is to be part of a healthy and happy team. There’s no one right way to avoid these feelings, but throughout my career, here are some of the common pitfalls I’ve noticed:

Expecting gratitude

This pitfall is particularly common for new managers who believe they need to go above and beyond in order to help their team through their personal issues. I’ve certainly been there myself, getting involved with my direct reports’ personal struggles and bending the rules just a little bit to help them through a difficult time. Managers sometimes get their feelings hurt after overextending themselves for their direct reports, particularly when they received no gratitude or recognition in return. They expected a “Hey remember that time that you went out on a limb for me, I really appreciate it.”

Don’t expect your consideration to reciprocated. Maybe, for your reports, your generosity wasn’t a coaching moment, but was actually transaction they thought they were negotiating.

Believing that your team is your family

I recently overheard a colleague say “as a manager you are no longer part of your team.” My first reaction was to take exception to this notion. Shouldn’t I still be a fully-fledged contributing team member?

But after thinking about it for a while, I came to see her point.

Once you become a manager, people will treat you differently. They’ll see you differently because you have become the gatekeeper to their success. They will begin to withhold information from you or bend facts, not out of malice, but because they need to present themselves to you in the way that they want to be seen as an employee, as someone who is deserving of a promotion, a raise, or a big opportunity.

And in many cases, no matter how much trust you think you’ve built, you are still just their manager. Managers are people to game, people who stand in their way to the next level.

Instead of thinking of your team as a family, think of your team as a collection of individuals you are coaching and stewarding for a finite period of time.

Relying on workplace friendships

If you are no longer part of your team, where do you find your sense of belonging at work? Is it with your fellow managers? One manager I spoke to said “absolutely not.” At least, not to a deep level. Why? Because in some companies, employees are stack-ranked, which means that someone has to lose for you to win.

Companies like these create an environment that is a low-boil of friendliness and competition. In this environment, you have to both collaborate and compete with your peers. Be too helpful, and you will take a back-seat and fall behind. Don’t help enough, and you won’t be seen as a team player. This is especially true in companies where the vision is not clear, and therefore it is not easy to identify which projects (and thereby managers) take priority.

If your company uses a stack-ranked system, it will be difficult to form close, open relationships with other managers, and it might be best to look for friends who work elsewhere.

The better way: separate your work and personal lives

Before this gets too depressing, know that not all managers have had these experiences.

Among the managers who I know, the happiest are able to separate their personal and work lives. They find their value and meaning with the few close connections they have outside of work. Inside of work, they don’t try to adapt their management style to each individual, thereby hinging their happiness on their judgement. They also seek out an environments where they have the backing to make the changes they need to bring the value balance back in their favor.

Switching your mindset from team member to manager can be a difficult process, but both you and your team will function better if you look for support in the right places.

Cynthia Maxwell led product teams that helped make it possible to use your phone for making video calls, reading books, communicating on Slack, or browsing Pinterest.